Chris Whitney and Jacob Savage were 70 yards from shore on a Sunday morning swim in Shasta Lake when they spotted five lithe, brown shapes swimming toward them.
But this family of North American river otters wasn’t there to give the boys an escort to shore.
They were furious.
On the other side of the lake with a beer in his hand, Chris’ father, Ryan Whitney of Cottonwood, said he heard 14-year-old Jacob scream first. Then 13-year-old Chris.
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Ryan Whitney said he could see the animals in the water, but he assumed the boys were merely frightened because the otters had gotten so close. He grew more alarmed as he watched three of the otters chasing the boys as they swam frantically back across a narrow section of the lake’s Sacramento River arm.
“The boys finally made it to shore after a minute or two and they came running up the shore still yelling,” Ryan Whitney said Thursday. “And I noticed blood all over their legs and their feet. They sat down and they were crying in pain.”
Jacob had scratches on his neck, a bite on his thigh and some minor bites and scratches on his legs, Ryan Whitney said. Chris got the worst of it.
“He got it pretty good on both his legs, and his toe was bit wide open and there was a lot of nicks and scratches,” Ryan Whitney said. “My son estimated probably 10 times he got bit or nipped.”
What followed was a trip to Shasta Regional Medical Center in Redding, where the boys endured the first in a series of three rabies shots – and some good-natured ribbing from members of the hospital’s staff.
“They gave them Otter Pops and they printed out an otter lineup and were asking the boys which one was the culprit,” he said.
Otherwise, Ryan Whitney said the boys are fine, and they had a good story to tell their friends when they went back to school this week.
While known for being cute, gregarious and playful, wildlife officials say it’s worth remembering that otters, which can grow to 4 feet long and 30 pounds, are feisty predators with needle-sharp teeth that they use to tear apart the fish, frogs, snakes, turtles and crayfish that make up the bulk of their diets. While attacks are rare, the member of the weasel family has been known to attack humans, especially if the otters feel threatened or to defend their young or their territory.
Ryan Whitney said the boys were just swimming and didn’t do anything to provoke the animals. He suspects the most aggressive of the otters was the group’s mother.
Sunday’s incident wasn’t the first time otters attacked swimmers on Shasta Lake.
In 2001, officials said a 17-year-old girl was attacked by five river otters as she, her sister and a friend were bobbing on an air mattress. An otter actually climbed onto the mattress and then the girl’s back, biting away. She fell in the water and other otters joined in. She was left with 30 puncture wounds that required 40 stitches and injections to guard against rabies.
While Sunday’s attack certainly was frightening at the time, Ryan Whitney now looks back at it with a dry sense of humor. On Facebook, one of his friends asked for autographs after seeing a local television news story featuring him and his son.
His response: “Ottergraphs.” Later he quipped, “Otterly amazing.”